Intentional Christian Community: Vocation, Community, and the Local Church (Pt 1)

Review of The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus, by David Janzen and a Community of Friends (Part 1 of 2)

By ALEXIS NEAL

The Christian church has ceased to be a body and has become instead a disconnected assortment of individuals. We no longer care for one another, meet one another’s needs, or walk alongside one another as the early church once did. “Church” has become somewhere we go once a week instead of something we are on a daily—or even moment-by moment—basis. We are fixated on personal autonomy instead of godly submission to one another, we cling to personal possessions instead of viewing them as gifts from God to be stewarded for His glory and the benefit of others, and we seek to elevate our own careers and reputations instead of prioritizing the health and vitality of Christ’s beloved church in the world.

So says David Janzen, and I confess, I think I agree with him. He raises valid criticisms about the current state of ‘community’ in the church, the materialism that pervades our society, and the emphasis on individualism and independence and self-determinism as unimpeachable human rights to be protected and celebrated (an attitude that has, I think, a unique appeal to Americans, given our historical narrative). He takes issue with the modern idea of watered-down, milquetoast community. And I have to say, he has a point. The trouble is I’m not sure his solutions don’t cause more problems than they purport to solve.

As I said, I think Janzen has hit on a major shortcoming of the modern American church. His solution is, all things considered, fairly straightforward: We should live in ‘community’ with other Christians, sharing our lives and possessions, and preferably even a common house and purse, in order to better follow the way of Jesus. In other words, we should live like hippies, but without the free love and mind-altering chemicals. Janzen draws on the experiences of a variety of such communities across the country, most with Mennonite, Hutterite, or similar roots—albeit often transplanted to a more urban and culturally interactive context. Janzen is less inclined to advocate these separatist ideologies, favoring instead the New Monasticism that seeks to demonstrate the love of Christ by living among and serving the marginalized in society.

There are, I think, three major problems with the solution offered by Janzen and company: It misunderstands vocation, it casts community in the roll of the church, and, more importantly, it lacks a solid gospel foundation. I’ll cover the first two issues in this post, and the final issue will be discussed in a separate post.

For Janzen, living in Christian community is the highest calling. Not for nothing does he repeatedly refer to New Monasticism. Like the Catholic Church before him, he sees those who live in these monastic communities as somehow holier and more acceptable to God. Of course, even monks have to eat, so Janzen endorses some work. Ideally, the work is performed in the context of the community; many communities found their own businesses (farms, contracting companies, etc.) in an attempt to be self-sustaining. If that fails, community members are encouraged to seek out careers in trades that enable them to serve the community (carpentry, etc.), and to work only 20 hours or 4 days a week, so that they have more time to devote to the community and its work.  I confess I have doubts about whether a collection of individuals working part-time jobs can sufficiently fund the needs of their community, particularly in the event of a medical or other catastrophe. And anyway, Janzen himself admits that many of these communities rely heavily on charitable donations from others—many of whom are presumably part of the less-holy majority who do not live in communities.

In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther took issue with this idea of vocational hierarchy, and instead taught that God was glorified by holy living in all honorable vocations. We need Christian bankers, Christian lawyers, Christian doctors and stock brokers and professors and customer service representatives and computer programmers and janitors. Christians in these professions have an opportunity to glorify God and preach the gospel from a unique position. Janzen’s attitude of vocational hierarchy would leave thousands of vocations devoid of Christian influence. Moreover, it misses the beauty of the gospel teaching that anyone, anywhere can glorify God right where he or she is, because we honor God not so much by what we do as by how we do it. (Ephesians 6:5-7) We work diligently—whether in mopping floors, selling shoes, or digging ditches—and God is glorified. (Colossians 3:22-24) We show the watching world what God is like by humbly loving and serving our co-workers and customers. A community with a shared vocation and a common purse may demonstrate the love of God differently, but it is not fair to say that it shows it better.

My second issue with Janzen’s idea of community is that Janzen sees these communities as filling a role that was actually designed to be filled by the local church. Janzen has essentially created an uber-church—a small enclave of believers within a given church (or even from different churches) who are more committed to one another than they are to the rest of the body. The result is an overly strict and overly lenient understanding of the church community.  Janzen makes community more than it needs to be by turning the descriptive account of the New Testament church into a prescriptive account of community life. (Acts 2:44-47) But in the process, he ends up watering down the biblical community of the church. The close-knit community of the New Testament that Janzen idolizes is, in actuality, coextensive with the local church; there is no mention of this uber-church. Similarly, the Epistles are addressed to local churches, individuals, or, occasionally, Christians in general—not to communities within the local churches. The Bible talks of our responsibilities to the world, the local church, and our families, but there is no in-between level of ‘community’ understood apart from the local church. By creating this uber-church, Janzen makes community less than it needs to be by restricting our ‘community’ obligations to a small sub-set of our local church—essentially giving us permission not to be in community with the rest of the local church.

While I don’t agree with all of Janzen’s ideas about community, he does make some good points that the local church would do well to consider.  For example, he encourages Christians to prioritize community, both vocationally and geographically. But we can—and should—prioritize community by prioritizing the local church. Local churches should encourage members to seek employment that will better enable them to love and serve fellow members. There are certainly times when, as Christians, we pass up worldly glory and recognition in order to leave more time for our families or our churches or other things. My church, for example, discourages members from accepting jobs or promotions that would prevent them from participating in the life of the church.

It is likewise true that living in close proximity to other members will further facilitate this participation. In an urban church like mine, this means that more than half of the members live within walking distance of the church (and one another). In a rural community—where there are simply not enough people to sustain many churches in a single area—members may live significantly farther apart. Either way, participation in a local church means being close enough to other members to be involved in each other’s lives. But again, this applies to churches, not uber-church sub-units.

I agree with Janzen that the local church has not done a very good job of demonstrating biblical community. But the solution lies in reforming the church’s understanding of and obedience to biblical teaching on community, not abandoning it in favor of a new, extra-biblical model of community. 

Part 2 of this review will follow … 

I received this book through the Patheos Book Club.

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Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.


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